By Mary Worrell
Teams from the New Jersey Cohort recently highlighted their culminating project plans during a webinar meeting. One team, from Perth Amboy Middle Schools, shared that they had a project in mind and plans in the works, but suggested it lacked a true spark – something that would motivate everyone involved.
That all changed when Janet Greve, a Language Arts Teacher from McGinnis Middle School, and her students took a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. in March.
“The project found us,” Greve said.
Fifty students from Perth Amboy were able to take a bus down to D.C. along with two holocaust survivors and Mike Rubell, founder of the Rubell Holocaust Foundation, which funded the trip thanks to a dedicated email, phone and letter-writing campaign by Greve. Rubell started the foundation named for his father Morris Rubell and uses it to fund a number of trips each year for students to visit the museum in D.C. Survivors talk with students during the bus trip there and visit the museum with them.
Cesi, an eighth grader student, went on the Holocost Museum trip.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Cesi said about the museum. ” There are simple, everyday things you look at differently – no longer take things for granted.”
For David, another eighth grade student, the trip gave him real perspective on the Holocaust.
“It made me realize that of the 12 million people that died, each story was different,” he said. “They weren’t all the same.”
Kay McNulty, Middle School Technology Coordinator and Perth Amboy Middle Schools Team Leader, said it was clear on the trip that students developed strong connections with some of the survivors.
“As we walked back to the bus, Mike said he brings kids on several of these school trips each year,” McNulty said. “I said let’s have them connect with other kids and other survivors to keep the conversations going. Mike was very interested in the whole community building idea.”
McNulty realized after the trip was winding down with a moving visit to the Lincoln Memorial that this could be the PLP team’s project. Not only would students benefit from keeping in touch with the survivors they met on the trip, but students could benefit from communicating with one another about their experiences. She decided, after sharing the idea with Rubell, that a virtual learning community (VLC) would be the best platform for something like this.
That same night McNulty started a VLC using NING for the Rubell Remembrance Journeys bus trip. She was so excited to get started and move things along and quickly realized this was the spark her team needed for their culminating PLP project.
Perth Amboy is a very busy public school, and this time of the year finds then focused on standardized testing, McNulty said, so it was difficult at first to get team members engaged and excited about the project.
“Now that we have been lucky enough to start a project together, the team is energized,” she said. “So, yes, maybe it happened backwards, but the point is that as a team they see that connecting through digital tools can engage kids in learning. And as we move forward and this project grows, the teacher and administrators will all hopefully make that connection.”
Right now the Rubell Remembrance Journeys NING has nearly 60 members, including Holocaust survivors and students from Perth Amboy Middle School. As the project grows, the Perth Amboy team hopes to involve students from other schools that visit the museum with Rubell.
For team member Greve, the PLP experience has been “eye-opening.”
“I have laptops in my classroom and the kids can research whatever they want,” Greve said. “I know they can make those personal connections. When they’re reading Night by Elie Weisel they can get on the NING site they created and ask a survivor about it.”
Greve said students area also learning to keep a level of professionalism in their VLC.
“They’re learning a lesson that this is not their Myspace – not a place for silly pictures,” Greve said. “We want them to have a level of respect for the subject matter and be aware of who’s reading it. It’s a forum where they can really reflect what went on in our history.”
The students are very important for the Perth Amboy team, McNulty said.
“I came to realize after talking with David and Cesi that they are excited to have a social place that is populated with their teachers and growing in membership with some other adults who they can stay connected with throughout high school,” McNulty said. “I see PLP as a professional development experience by way of students. The kids are enriching the PLP experience in surprising ways.”
Read more about Perth Amboy Middle Schools’ team project here.